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The Meritocratic Fallacy

Owen Wang

Apr 30, 2023

The Meritocratic Fallacy

“Pull yourself up by the bootstraps!” proclaims the fundamental American imperative. Never has there been a more befitting encapsulation of the United States than this decree, reframing success as a consequence of personal merit rather than of social caste. The phrase itself, once describing an absurd impossibility, has somehow inspired fantastical tales of self-reliance: from Horatio Alger’s archetypal rags-to-riches narrative; to Ayn Rand’s espousal of individualism in Atlas Shrugged; to the contemporary political romanticization of a self-made destiny, exploited ad nauseam by Democrats and Republicans alike.

The ‘bootstrapping’ exemplar nevertheless continues to thrive – as it has for hundreds of years – because it acknowledges one of the most admired principles of our society – the enduring belief that, on the Land of Opportunity, anyone can prevail, as long as they have the necessary fortitude and resolve. This idiosyncratic model of success, the so-called ‘American Dream’, concedes that our nation stands firmly on the pedestal of meritocracy, that America’s civil framework unfailingly rewards ingenuity and ambition, instead of elitism and privilege.

Yet our beloved meritocracy is merely a fantasy, based upon aspirational ideals rather than an objective representation of American citizenry. It operates on a condition non-existent in the United States, as it quietly reinforces what we want to believe instead of what is evidently true. Meritocracy, essentially, assumes that class structure is defunct, that opportunity is equitably dispersed, that the social mobility escalator is universally accessible. The reality, of course, is much more prosaic: the United States was founded on a socioeconomic hierarchy, one that persists in many of our systems, from education to employment to medical care.

The ignorance stemming from our meritocratic beliefs is flagrantly obvious, yet we consciously accept it as a rationalization for our inequitable policies and institutions. This acceptance, emanating from our unbridled conviction in the American Dream, ratifies a certain expectation for success, the lack thereof implying a kind of personal failure, regarded with apathy or disdain from the American elite. Such contempt has, for instance, modulated political discourse around the social security net, impelling our reluctance to expand or improve existing public assistance programs because, by the flawed logic of meritocracy, the underprivileged should be able to pull themselves up ‘by the bootstraps’ without any government support.

That reasoning, in essence, is the American meritocracy: an alluring idea that endorses a culture of equalized opportunity and individual excellence, while ignoring the structural inequalities that had always limited the potential of numerous Americans. It speaks to the best of our country and hides the worst. The result is a nation that celebrates the few who achieve great success and one that turns a blind eye to the many who are left behind.

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